Aug 09 2016

A Plant With a Place in American History

Published by under Plants

American Groundnut flowers, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

American Groundnut flowers, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

These mauve-brown flowers aren’t big and showy but they have a place in American history.

American groundnut (Apios americana) is a perennial vine in eastern North America with tuberous roots that are good to eat.  Many Native American tribes cultivated the plant, dug the roots and ate them like potatoes. The Lenape people called them “hobbenis” or hopniss.

Flower and leaves of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Flower and leaves of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When Europeans arrived in North America they knew nothing of the plant but learned quickly from the natives to avoid starvation.  The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims where to find it and how to cook it.  It was probably on the menu at the first Thanksgiving.

Here’s what a freshly dug harvest looks like:

Tubers ("potatoes") of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubers of American groundnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Europeans took hopniss back to the Old World and tried raising it as a crop, but the projects were soon abandoned because Apios americana doesn’t grow well in monocultures and it isn’t large enough to harvest until it’s two to three years old.

More recently the wild foods community has rediscovered hopniss but its desire to grow with other plants — and engulf them — is frustrating to tidy gardeners.

This month is a good time to see American groundnut in the wild.

It’s blooming now in western Pennsylvania.

 

Note:  If you decide to forage for this plant get permission from the landowner before you begin.  This goes for public lands too. For instance, it is illegal to take flowers, plants and animals from Pittsburgh City parks and Allegheny County parks.

(flower photo by Kate St. John. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.)

 

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Aug 08 2016

Asleep In Flight

Published by under Bird Behavior

Great frigatebird carrying sleep monitoring equipment (photo by Bryson Voiron from Nature Communications article)

Great frigatebird with sleep monitoring equipment (photo by Bryson Voiron from Nature Communications article)

On transoceanic airplane trips the passengers try to sleep in flight but the pilots stay awake. (Thank heaven!)  Many birds, including swifts, sandpipers and songbirds, fly non-stop over the ocean for so long that scientists guessed the birds would have to sleep along the way.  But how? Wouldn’t they crash?

As part of their daily lives, great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) fly non-stop for weeks, eating flying fish and ocean-surface food in trips that can span two months and 22,000 miles.  These large birds live over the ocean but not on it because their feathers aren’t waterproof.

Great frigatebirds have got to sleep some time so researchers led by Niels C. Rattenborg of the Max Planck Institute fitted more than a dozen females with instruments to measure sleep and flight time.  The great frigatebird, above, has a sleep-measuring headset and a GPS backpack.

The results of the sleep study were surprising.

Scientists knew that, on land, birds can sleep with only half the brain while the other half stays alert for danger. They found that great frigatebirds half-sleep in the air, too, but sometimes both hemispheres sleep at once for more than two minutes.  They do it while circling on an updraft.

Another surprise was how little the birds slept, clocking only 42 minutes/day in the air compared to 12 hours/day on land.  If they were humans they’d be seriously sleep deprived.

Amazingly the frigatebirds’ performance was not affected by lack of sleep and when they got home they caught up on sleep in their first days on shore.  How many of us wish we could live like that!

Find out more here at Gizmodo or in the report here in Nature Communications.

 

(photo of great frigatebird with sleep measuring equipment by Bryson Voiron from  “Evidence that birds sleep in flight,” Nature Communications)

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Aug 07 2016

Wear Gloves

Published by under Plants

Arrowleaf tearthumb, flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb, flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t pick this flower unless you wear gloves.

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is a sprawling annual vine in the Buckwheat family that grows in moist areas.  Individual plants are three to six feet long but you’d have to untangle them to prove it.  I don’t recommend doing that.

The stems are lined with tiny hooks that bend toward the root of the plant.  If you pull the plant with your bare hands … Owww!  It tears your thumb.

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the hooks (photo by Kate St.John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the hooks (photo by Kate St.John)

 

We found arrowleaf tearthumb at Jennings Prairie yesterday.  The flowers are quite small so it’s easy to overlook.  Here’s my thumb near the stem to give you some perspective.

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the stem and my thumb (photo by Kate St. John)

Arrowleaf tearthumb: the stem with a thumb nearby (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Remember to wear gloves.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

 

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Aug 06 2016

Another Turnover

Published by under Peregrines

If you’re keeping track of female peregrine ownership at the Cathedral of Learning, it changed again this afternoon.

On Tuesday, August 2 an unbanded young female (1.3 years old) arrived on the scene and bowed with Terzo at the nest.  She was present for four days.

Then at 3:25pm today, August 6, Hope reappeared on camera with Terzo.

The action so far has been:

  • 30 Nov 2015: Hope arrives at the Cathedral of Learning
  • 8 April 2016 (same day):  Hope retains site after unbanded immature female visits the nest.
  • 23 April 2016 (same day): Hope retains site after banded adult female visits the nest.
  • 22 June 2016:  Magnum (black/red 62/H) claims the Cathedral of Learning.
  • 24 June 2016: Hope regains the site.
  • 2 August 2016: Unbanded young female claims the Cathedral of Learning.
  • 6 August 2016: Hope regains the site.

I hasten to add that no humans ever see how these turnovers occur.

@PittPeregrines‘ video above pretty much sums it up.

Stay tuned.  I’m sure there will be more turnovers in the future.

 

(video from @PittPeregrines on Facebook)

37 responses so far

Aug 06 2016

Big and Beautiful

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Royal Walnut or Regal Moth (photo by Don Weiss)

Royal Walnut or Regal Moth (photo by Don Weiss)

Beautiful moths come in all sizes.

On Monday I wrote about the pink-and-yellow rosy maple moth whose wingspan is only one to two inches.  Don Weiss supplied Monday’s photo and commented that they found this big and beautiful moth at the same time.

The royal walnut or regal moth (Citheronia regalis) is the largest moth in the western hemisphere north of Mexico.  With a wing span of 3.75 to 6+ inches, it lives in deciduous forests from New Jersey to eastern Kansas and east Texas to Florida.

Citheronia regalis is always big but not always beautiful.  As a caterpillar it’s so scary-looking that it’s called a hickory horned devil.  Click here to see its final instar on someone’s hand.

True to its name the caterpillar feeds on walnuts, hickories and a lot of other trees.  Since their only job is to procreate the adults never eat. They live only a week.

Now’s a good time to find this big and beautiful moth in southwestern Pennsylvania.

 

(photo by Don Weiss)

4 responses so far

Aug 05 2016

His Feathers Sing

The male club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) uses dance and sound to attract the ladies but he doesn’t open his mouth.  He uses his wings!

Watch and listen as he bows and flares.  The loud buzzy noise is made by his secondaries.  Cornell Lab writes:

The secondary wing feathers of the male Club-Winged Manakin, a bird from South America, are large and rigid. He strikes them together at about 107 times per second to create a buzzing sound, which is used during courtship displays.

Ornithologists have known for a long time that the males’ secondary feathers are deformed.  This 1871 drawing shows the difference between the males’ deformed and the females’ normal feathers.

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin's - The Descent of Man

Modification of Manakin Pipra deliciosa = Machaeropterus deliciosus wings for sound production, from Darwin’s – The Descent of Man

 

Now that we have high definition video we can see why they’re like that.  He makes his feathers sing.

 

p.s.  Click here for the location of secondary wing feathers.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube. Illustration from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 04 2016

Today Is International Owl Awareness Day

Published by under Birds of Prey

Great horned owl mother and nestling, Florida 2010 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Great horned owl mother and nestling, Florida 2010 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Nesting season is over but it’s nice to look back at this mother great horned owl and her nestling. Today is their special day.

August 4 is International Owl Awareness Day, an annual celebration of owls.  To get you in the mood, here’s a quick video that promoted last year’s event at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

 

And here are some of today’s worldwide International Owl Awareness events:

Whooooo knew!   🙂

 

(photo by Chuck Tague, video from the Oregon Zoo)

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Aug 03 2016

Another Female Visitor

Published by under Peregrines

Unbanded young female peregrine visits Cathedral of Learning nest, 2 August 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Unbanded young female peregrine visits Cathedral of Learning nest, 2 August 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday at 5:30pm Carol D. and Megan Briody saw something that the rest of us missed:  This unbanded 1-year-old female peregrine bowed with Terzo at the Cathedral of Learning nest.

Apparently Hope was not at home.

Hope was last seen on camera on Sunday evening, July 31 at 6:49pm. No peregrines visited the nest on Monday.  Then yesterday afternoon, August 2, Terzo visited alone several times and often looked up. Was he looking for someone?

At 5:29pm Terzo came to the nest and called to someone.  Soon an unbanded young female arrived and they bowed for five minutes. Her color is a mix of gray and brown because she’s molting into adult plumage.

Unbanded young female, back to camera, bows with Terzo (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Unbanded young female, back to camera, bows with Terzo (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

When the session began Terzo was in the back corner but the male peregrine (almost) always leaves the ledge first so the two had to change places.  That maneuver was so clumsy that it looked as if the young female chased Terzo away.

But no, Terzo paused on the nestrail to watch her as she bowed again.

Unbanded young female bows to Terzo (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Unbanded young female bows to Terzo (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

He left.  And then she left.

Unbanded young female peregrine leaving Cathedral of Learning nest (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Unbanded young female peregrine leaving Cathedral of Learning nest, August 2, 5:32pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Female “intruders” at this site have become a routine occurrence.  As I said in my reply to Carol D, Hope has probably gone wandering. Her behavior shows she’s a weak owner of the Cathedral of Learning so I won’t be surprised if she’s chased away next spring and replaced by a new female.

 

p.s. Click on these links to read Carol D’s and Megan‘s reports. (You might have to scroll down.)

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Univ of Pittsburgh)

NOTE: You may have noticed that the time stamp on the snapshot camera was about 4 minutes off. I fixed it this morning.

 

24 responses so far

Aug 02 2016

Come to Jennings Prairie, August 6

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Culvers root and tall sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Culvers root and tall sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every year the Wissahickon Nature Club holds a late summer outing at Jennings Environmental Education Center to enjoy the wide variety of wildflowers that grow on the prairie.

This year the outing will remember our late president Chuck Tague who passed away in June.

Chuck Tague in 2011 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

What: Wissahickon Nature Club outing led by Dianne Machesney

When: Saturday, August 6, 10:00am

Where: Jennings Environmental Education Center, also called Jennings Prairie, Butler County.  Directions From Pittsburgh: 79N to 422E roughly 5.8 miles to 528N. Go 7 miles. Meet in the Jennings Prairie parking lot on the left (west) side of the road.

Bring binoculars, field guides, lunch, beverages and water for the trail. The Prairie is hot and shadeless. Wear a hat and sunscreen.

This walk is open to the public. All are welcome and encouraged to bring a friend.

We’re sure to see Culvers root, tall sunflowers, dense blazing star and purple fringed orchids.  And though we’ll focus on flowers, Wissahickon is a “general” nature club so we’ll look at everything that strikes our fancy — flowers, birds, butterflies and all.

Click on the links above to read more about the flowers.

 

(photo at Jennings by Kate St. John, photo of Chuck Tague in 2011 by Marianne Atkinson)

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Aug 01 2016

Rosy Maple Moth

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Rosy maple moth (photo by Don Weiss)

Rosy maple moth (photo by Don Weiss)

Can you believe the colors on this moth?

Fuzzy pink and yellow, the rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) lives only a week in this beautiful body. Its wing colors are highly variable but its head and back are usually yellow with pink belly, legs and antennae.

Most of its life is spent as a green-striped caterpillar, eating maple leaves, and passing through five instars.  When fully mature the caterpillar crawls down the tree and pupates underground.

In western Pennsylvania the moths are above ground from May to September but are easiest to find in late July.  The adults don’t eat.  They have only one job, to procreate.

The action begins around sunset.  The females perch on the undersides of leaves and exude pheromones.  The males fly around “sniffing” the air with their big fluffy antennae.  Perhaps this division of labor is why the females have insignificant antennae.  (My guess is that the moth in Don Weiss’ photo is female.)

If you’re lucky to see the rosy maple moth you’ll be surprised at how small it is — only 1″ long. Click here to see one on the tip of a finger.

I found one once at the Panhandle Trail in Collier Township.  Its beauty stopped me in my tracks.

 

(photo by Don Weiss)

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